Dandridge v. Williams

Decision Date06 April 1970
Docket NumberNo. 131,131
PartiesEdmund P. DANDRIDGE, Jr., et al., Appellants, v. Linda WILLIAMS et al
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

See 398 U.S. 914, 90 S.Ct. 1684.

George W. Liebmann, Baltimore, Md., for appellants.

Joseph A. Matera, Baltimore, Md., for appellees.

Mr. Justice STEWART delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case involves the validity of a method used by Maryland, in the administration of an aspect of its public welfare program, to reconcile the demands of its needy citizens with the finite resources available to meet those demands. Like every other State in the Union, Maryland participates in the Federal Aid to Families With Dependent Children (AFDC program, 42 U.S.C. § 601 et seq. (1964 ed. and Supp. IV), which originated with the Social Security Act of 1935.1 Under this jointly financed program, a State computes the so-called 'standard of need' of each eligible family unit within its borders. See generally Rosado v. Wyman, 397 U.S. 397, 90 S.Ct. 1207, 25 L.Ed.2d 442. Some States provide that every family shall receive grants sufficient to meet fully the determined standard of need. Other States provide that each family unit shall receive a percentage of the determined need. Still others provide grants to most families in full accord with the ascertained standard of need, but impose an upper limit on the total amount of money any one family unit may receive. Maryland, through administrative adoption of a 'maximum grant regulation,' has followed this last course. This suit was brought by several AFDC recipients to enjoin the application of the Maryland maximum grant regulation on the ground that it is in conflict with the Social Security Act of 1935 and with the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. A three-judge District Court, convened pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2281, held that the Maryland regulation violates the Equal Protection Clause. 297 F.Supp. 450. This direct appeal followed, 28 U.S.C. § 1253, and we noted probable jurisdiction, 396 U.S. 811, 90 S.Ct. 62, 24 L.Ed.2d 64.

The operation of the Maryland welfare system is not complex. By statute2 the State participates in the AFDC program. It computes the standard of need for each eligible family based on the number of children in the family and the circumstances under which the family lives. In general, the standard of need increases with each additional person in the household, but the incre- ments become proportionately smaller.3 The regulation here in issue imposes upon the grant that any single family may receive an upper limit of $250 per month in certain counties and Baltimore City, and of $240 per month elsewhere in the State.4 The appellees all have large families, so that their standards of need as computed by the State substantially exceed the maximum grants that they actually receive under the regulation. The appellees urged in the District Court that the maximum grant limitation operates to discriminate against them merely because of the size of their families, in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. They claimed further that the regulation is incompatible with the purpose of the Social Security Act of 1935, as well as in conflict with its explicit provisions.

In its original opinion the District Court held that the Maryland regulation does conflict with the federal statute, and also concluded that it violates the Fourteenth Amendment's equal protection guarantee. After reconsideration on motion, the court issued a new opinion resting its determination of the regulation's invalidity entirely on the constitutional ground.5 Both the statutory and constitutional issues have been fully briefed and argued here, and the judgment of the District Court must, of course, be affirmed if the Maryland regulation is in conflict with either the federal statute or the Constitution.6 We consider the statutory question first, be- cause if the appellees' position on this question is correct, there is no occasion to reach the constitutional issues. Ashwander v. TVA, 297 U.S. 288, 346—347, 56 S.Ct. 466, 482—483, 80 L.Ed. 688 (Brandeis, J., concurring); Rosenberg v. Fleuti, 374 U.S. 449, 83 S.Ct. 1804, 10 L.Ed.2d 1000.


The appellees contend that the maximum grant system is contrary to § 402(a) (10) of the Social Security Act, as amended,7 which requires that a state plan shall

'provide * * * that all individuals wishing to make application for aid to families with dependent children shall have opportunity to do so, and that aid to families with dependent children shall be furnished with reasonable promptness to all eligible individuals.'

The argument is that the state regulation denies benefits to the younger children in a large family. Thus, the appellees say, the regulation is in patent violation of the Act, since those younger children are just as 'dependent' as their older siblings under the definition of 'dependent child' fixed by federal law.8 See King v. Smith, 382 U.S. 309, 88 S.Ct. 2128, 20 L.Ed.2d 1118. Moreover, it is argued that the regulation, in limiting the amount of money any single household may receive, contravenes a basic purpose of the federal law by encouraging the parents of large families to 'farm out' their children to relatives whose grants are not yet subject to the maximum limitation.

It cannot be gainsaid that the effect of the Maryland maximum grant provision is to reduce the per capita benefits to the children in the largest families. Although the appellees argue that the younger and more recently arrived children in such families are totally deprived of aid, a more realistic vie is that the lot of the entire family is diminished because of the presence of additional children without any increase in payments. Cf. King v. Smith, supra, at 335 n. 4, 88 S.Ct. at 2142 (Douglas, J., concurring). It is no more accurate to say that the last child's grant is wholly taken away than to say that the grant of the first child is totally rescinded. In fact, it is the family grant that is affected. Whether this per capita diminution is compatible with the statute is the question here. For the reasons that follow, we have concluded that the Maryland regulation is permissible under the federal law.

In King v. Smith, supra, we stressed the States' 'undisputed power,' under these provisions of the Social Security act, 'to set the level of benefits and the standard of need.' Id., at 334, 88 S.Ct. at 2142. We described the AFDC enterprise as 'a scheme of cooperative federalism,' id., at 316, 88 S.Ct. at 2133, and noted carefully that '(t)here is no question that States have considerable latitude in allocating their AFDC resources, since each State is free to set its own standard of need and to determine the level of benefits by the amount of funds it devotes to the program.' Id., at 318—319, 88 S.Ct. at 2134.

Congress was itself cognizant of the limitations on state resources from the very outset of the federal welfare program. The first section of the Act, 42 U.S.C. § 601 (1964 ed., Supp. IV), provides that the Act is

'For the purpose of encouraging the care of dependent children in their own homes or in the homes of relatives by enabling each State to furnish financial assistance and rehabilitation and other services, as far as practicable under the conditions in such State, to needy dependent children and the parents or relatives with whom they are living to help maintain and strengthen family life and to help such parents or relatives to attain or retain capability for the maximum self-support and personal independence consistent with the maintenance of continuing parental care and protection, * * *' (Emphasis added.)

Thus the starting point of the statutory analysis must be a recognition that the federal law gives each State great latitude in dispensing its available funds.

The very title of the program, the repeated references to families added in 1962, Pub.L. 87—543, § 104(a)(3), 76 Stat. 185, and the words of the preamble quoted above, show that Congress wished to help children through the family structure. The operation of the statute itself has this effect. From its inception the Act has defined 'dependent child' in part by reference to the relatives with whom the child lives.9 When a 'dependent child' is living with relatives, then 'aid' also includes payments and medical care to those relatives, including the spouse of the child's parent. 42 U.S.C. § 606(b) (1964 ed., Supp. IV). Thus, as the District Court noted, the amount of aid 'is * * * computed by treating the relative, parent or spouse of parent as the case may be, of the 'dependent child' as a part of the family unit.' 297 F.Supp., at 455. Congress has been so desirous of keeping dependent children within a family that in the Social Security Amendments of 1967 it provided that aid could go to children whose need arose merely from their parents' unemployment, under federally determined standards, although the parent was not incapacitated. 42 U.S.C. § 607 (1964 ed., Supp. IV).

The States must respond to this federal statutory concern for preserving children in a family environment. Given Maryland's finite resources, its choice is either to support some families adequately and others less adequately, or not to give sufficient support to any family. We see nothing in the federal statute that forbids a State to balance the stresses that uniform insufficiency of payments would impose on all families against the greater ability of large families—because of the inherent economies of scale—to accommodate their needs to diminished per capita payments. The strong policy of the statute in favor of preserving family units does not prevent a State from sustaining as many families as it can, and providing the largest families somewhat less than their ascertained per capita standard of need.10 Nor does the maximum grant system necessitate the...

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